Jesus>Religion

To any rap tune of your choosing:

I want to say,

There’s a big payday

For the ones who say

There’s just no way

That Moses, Jesus, and Martin

Pissed on religion

But there’s just no way

To make a case for that vision

Yet another ill-informed commentator with a camera, a really great leather jacket, and a nice make up job has declared his preference for living down and dirty with the outcasts, choosing Jesus over religion.  It’s a great piece and really compelling.

Too bad he doesn’t know much about history, the Gospels, or Jesus for that matter:

  • Jesus, who cared about what was happening in Israel (read religion)
  • Jesus, who went to the Temple to study Torah (read religion)
  • Jesus, who challenged the Temple leadership to be faithful in the discharge of their duties, but didn’t deny the legitimacy of their office (read religion)
  • Jesus, who warned the Temple’s leadership about the impending judgment facing Israel, as embodied by the Temple, but didn’t see its demise as necessary or even desirable (read religion)
  • Jesus, who wept over its leadership’s refusal to listen, as did his prophetic predecessors — who also thought the problem with the Temple’s priests was that they weren’t authentically what they were meant to be (read religion)

There’s not the slightest suggestion in the Gospels that Jesus distinguished between himself and Judaism, or the shape of his spirituality and his commitment to religious practice.  In fact, the distinction between spirituality and religion would have been unintelligible to him.

What the slick video would have done well to rap on was a distinction made by Gordon Allport over sixty years ago now, but is as old as human behavior itself: the difference between mature and immature religious outlooks.  Writing in The Individual and His Religion, Allport points out that three things distinguish someone who is mature in their religious convictions from those who are immature.

They possess:

  • values that transcend infantile desires
  • the ability to reflect deeply on one’s own life, seeing it in cosmic perspective (and with a sense of humor)
  • a coherent (though in all likelihood, never complete) and unifying religious world view that aids in personal integration

Arguably Allport’s categories apply imperfectly to Christianity, or to any other religion, for that matter.  They are, after all, a modern attempt to identify a phenomenon that has ancient roots that doesn’t yield easily to a one-size-fits-all analysis.  But at a minimum, Allport points us to the real problem: It is not religion, but the way in which we appropriate it, that subverts the virtues of the religious life.

You can call that failure the product of immature religious sensibilities (as Allport does), you can describe it as immaturity pure and simple, or you can describe it as hypocrisy.  But it’s simplistic, misleading, and even a bit immature to describe the problem as the difference between religion and Jesus.

When it surfaces, I don’t like hypocrisy any better than the video’s rapper.  I’m an Episcopal priest.  I have years’ worth of reasons for wanting to walk out on religion, as does anyone who has ever spent time in the church — any church.  But as Karl Rahner points out, “sinners still belong to the church.”  To offer the self-righteous criticism that the church fails us masks the fact that we fail Jesus as well.

One could argue, of course, as the rapper implies, that he doesn’t compound his failure by trying to be religious.  The answer to which is, “No, he makes a video trumpeting the presumption that he is too righteous to be religious.”  In other words, he does precisely what we cannot do, because none of us can claim to be without sin.

By all means, we should be critical of the church.  That kind of criticism, like the criticism that Jesus offered of the Temple leadership in his own day, is a necessary (though not the only) piece of what it means to listen to God.  But we cannot be spiritual alone and, to coin a phrase, no one is a self-righteous island.

It feels good to visit that place.  I’ve always enjoyed trips there.  But Allport and Rahner are both right.  It’s an immature and spiritually dangerous place to live.

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Rueben Job Institute for Spiritual Formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and consulting editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, as well as several books: A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009), and The Dave Test (Abingdon, 2013). He and his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), live in Highland Park, Illinois, with their Gordon Setter, Hilda of Whitby. They have four children and four grandchildren: Henry, Addie, Heidi, and Sophie.


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